Every year I post a list of upcoming Japanese to English translation competitions. A lot of these competitions are really great for aspiring and experienced translators to practice their skills. But it’s often hard to know what the judges are looking for. Aspiring and new translators tend to stick close to the source text because they’re unsure. This might not be the best tactic though.
So I went over comments from translation judges for a few past competitions to determine what they’re looking for in a translation. These included the JLPP, the Manga Translation Battle, and the JAT Contest for New and Aspiring Translators. (I’ve included links to the original feedback I referenced at the bottom of this article.)
These are Japanese to English translation competitions, but the judge’s feedback and advice might prove useful to other language pairs.
– Feedback From the Judges –
Accurate in Meaning
Obviously this goes without saying, the translation needs to be accurate to the original.
In the JAT Contest, a translation of non-fiction, James Davis points out the importance of research. Especially for proper nouns. You can’t just guess the reading for a name or directly translate the Japanese. Often reference to real people, events, and places will have official English names that might differ from the Japanese. So it pays to double check and do your research.
If you have a piece of creative text (such as a novel or manga) it’s important to distinguish the difference between made-up people and places. This might not seem clear in some situations but you can always check with a native speaker if you’re unsure.
Grammar is often another tripping point for translators. We often learn Japanese with a focus on vocabulary, but the meaning of the sentence is carried mostly by the grammar. Double check grammar you’re unsure of, and try to understand the meaning of the sentence in its entirety before translating.
Smooth/Natural Sounding English
Every single competition judge commented on the importance of natural English. Even the non-fiction JAT judge James Davis said how translation should be accurate and complete, but be as natural as possible without impacting these.
I mentioned how new and aspiring translators often stayed close to the Japanese due to uncertainty. But Ken Inoue commented on the 5th JLPP that direct translations often don’t work because they lose a lot of meaning. You might be translating the words but you lose the meaning behind those words.
Matt Alt gave the advice on the Manga Translation Battle Vol.7, “Don’t get too hung up on the dictionary definitions of words and try to come up with more natural-sounding equivalents, even if they aren’t precise matches.” He emphasized that this was particularly important with dialogue.
William Flanagan (also from the Manga Translation Battle) commented that, “natural sounding dialogue is a must for translation.”
And Debora Aoki (Manga Translation Battle) also said that the translations for light novels and novels in particular needed to be accurate, but also have well-written prose that was true to the original Japanese author’s style, while being readable and enjoyable for English readers.
Re-creation of Tone
Tone means selecting the most appropriate vocabulary and grammar for the situation. Many judges commented on how contestants understood the tone of the original and conveyed that into English.
For the JAT contest the tone and register was literary in parts but also formal. This was because the text was a non-fiction opinion piece. So it wasn’t quite creative literature, but wasn’t as ridged as a technical document. Ken Wagner commented a few times in his critique how chosen terminology either accurately reflected the author’s intent or tone, or not.
This ties into characterization below, but dialogue carries a lot of tone which can shape the reader’s impression of the text. People use different language depending on their age, gender, class, and what point in history they’re in.
Accurately reflecting that tone of voice in characters, as well as the author, is incredibly important.
One of the best descriptions of this was by Janine Beichman for the 5th JLPP, who said the best translations didn’t directly translate but “rebirthed” the text. “You can feel the voice of the original and the voice of the translator mixing.”
Characterization ties in with tone but it takes one step further. Good characterization reflects the tone of voice but also conjures an impression of the character in the reader’s mind. It would be strange to have an Edo Period courtesan speak with modern-day language and use a lot of conjunctions and slang.
Japanese texts will often have characters from Kyoto or Osaka, both of which have similar dialects that create differing impressions to Japanese readers. Osaka is seen as crass and low-brow, while Kyoto is viewed as being quite posh. This is where matching tone and characterization come hand-in-hand. It would be strange for someone from Kyoto (who is seen as refined by Japanese people) to speak with a lower-class British accent (which was an issue in the Manga Translation Battle Vol. 7).
Accents and dialects are incredibly difficult to pull off. There was no feedback for the Kurodahan Press Translation Prize, but their style guide states that you should avoid accents as they’re often poorly executed.
However the winner of the 5th JLPP translation competition was highly praised by all the judges for risking an accent in one of the texts. Stephen Snyder comments that, “translating dialect is one of the most challenging feats in literary translation, and many of us choose to simply avoid the issue.”
Then again, characterization can be conveyed without using accents. A strong accent can be incredibly difficult to read (and readability is important!) but you also don’t want everyone to sound exactly the same or like robots. Carefully selected wording that would be appropriate for a certain character can often go a long way.
– Tips from the Judges –
So many judges comment on the importance of reading aloud.
Janine Beichman is the only judge who breaks down her judging process. She describes how when she finds English that reads well she’ll then compare it to the Japanese for accuracy, marking passages with circles, crosses, and “awks” for awkward phrases.
At the end she says that the best way to develop this ability of balancing the original meaning and well-written English is to “read the [original] aloud as much as you can and then, as you translate, to keep reading your own translation aloud.”
Note: Word’s text-to-audio feature can be incredibly useful if you struggle with this.
Do Your Research
Research isn’t only important for non-fiction texts, the judges on creative texts also commented when it was clear a translator had done their research.
Don’t just look up the first result on Google or the first result in a dictionary. Look up terms in Japanese-to-Japanese dictionaries. Find out the correct readings or English for proper nouns. Research the setting.
Personally I think one of the best things you can also do is ask Japanese people. Japanese people are still human, so don’t take what they say at face value. But at least confirming your interpretation of the text can really help.
Be Conscious of Author and Audience
None of the judges explicitly say to be conscious of this, but a few do say how you should be conscious of tone and characterization. Which basically means to be conscious of the author (their tone) and audience (how the audience interprets the voice, aka characterization).
What tone/register of voice is the author using? What image will the translation create in the readers’ mind? Will it be the same as Japanese readers of the original text?
This requires a level of empathy and cultural understanding that can only be gained from reading more and translating more. Practice makes perfect!
If you’re interested in partaking in a Japanese to English translation competition,
then click here for a list of current (2021) competition.
Referenced Competitions Feedback
5th JLPP International Translation Competition (2020)
Scroll to Critiques by the Judges